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Energy Retrofits: What You Should Know

Demand for green remodeling is growing, but that doesn’t mean tons of extra work as a builder or remodeler. Even if you get called for an estimate on a project unrelated to energy retrofits, look beyond the initial request and consider what retrofits you can make as part of the project, says Tim Ellis, vice chair of the Green Remodeling Committee for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Energy retrofits are an important consideration at a time when existing homes consume 22 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy of the U.S. Department of Energy. Energy retrofits may be a new source of income for you. Plus, they can help save homeowners hundreds of dollars. “With cost-effective improvements, most homes can reduce their energy use by 20 to 40 percent,” says Grady O’Rear, president/CEO of Green Advantage, a non-profit organization that offers green building certification to construction personnel. “Builders and remodelers can take advantage of this opportunity to improve energy efficiency and lower customers’ utility bills.”

Conduct an Energy Audit

To upgrade efficiency with energy retrofits, you must first assess a home’s current energy use and then determine how to curtail energy waste and make efficiency improvements. An energy audit will identify the most obvious sources of energy loss, helping you determine exactly what improvements you can make. As part of the audit, O’Rear suggests you ask:

  • Are there openings and gaps in walls, joints and under eaves?
  • Is the attic properly insulated and ventilated?
  • Are electrical and plumbing lines sealed?
  • Are air ducts properly sealed?
  • Is the basement or crawl space properly insulated?

These last two questions are particularly important because many older homes haven’t been properly air-sealed or insulated, Ellis says. “A lot of them do not have very high efficiency when it comes to air conditioning, heating and the air handlers,” Ellis says. “A lot of their ductwork is either leaky or it’s outside the building envelope, meaning that it’s in unconditioned space, it’s not properly insulated. So they’re pretty much heating and cooling the outside.”

Low-cost HVAC Retrofits

Improvements such as caulking around doors and windows, redirecting vents to improve air circulation, properly sealing air-ducts and improving the wall insulation of a home can lead to big energy savings. Mike O'Connell, who works in sales for The Hayes Company in Kansas City, Mo., calculates that just by insulating the walls of a balloon frame house — where the home is open from the basement to the attic — can reduce utility bills by at least 50 percent. “Thirty to 40 percent of your heating and cooling bill is air infiltration," O'Connell says.

To redirect vents, he's taken a pair of needle nose pliers to straighten out the fins on vents, so the air is flowing into the living space, not into the wall. Because you can lose over 25 percent of your heating/cooling through holes in ductwork, O'Connell recommends sealing air ducts with duct mastic, a thick glue-type material. Wall insulation can be improved through a tubing method, in which you stick a tube in and pack it full of cellulose or foam to insulate sidewalls and stop air movement.

Improve Indoor Air Quality

Energy retrofits can include measures that will improve a home’s indoor air quality (IAQ) and increase the durability of appliances, O’Rear says. And all of those benefits translate to better marketability for your business, he adds. “But energy retrofits that tighten the building envelope can reduce the amount of air infiltration or air leakage that enters a building,” O’Rear says. “Tighter buildings need to have appropriate IAQ protections. By planning and implementing these IAQ features, both energy efficiency and occupant health goals are better met.”

Opportunities to Retrofit in the Home

There are plenty of other ways to retrofit a customer’s home with environmental responsibility in mind. Ellis and O’Rear offer these examples:

  • Upgrade and replace kitchen or bathroom faucets with low-flow faucets that can decrease water use.
  • Insulate the basement walls and floor joists to keep cold air from traveling to the first floor.
  • Install energy-efficient windows, lighting, hot water heaters and ENERGY STAR-rated appliances to reduce overall energy use. 

In more extensive retrofits, cool roofs, insulating concrete forms (ICFs) and solar thermal panels may be used, O'Rear says.

Opportunities to go green are abundant, O’Rear says. Those who become trained and certified “will have an edge,” Ellis adds, because future code laws will focus on energy use. 


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